The Hindu: Why immigration and the migrant vote both matter in the UK, published 16 March 2015
FOR THE HINDU (as submitted)
WHY IMMIGRATION AND THE MIGRANT VOTE BOTH MATTER IN U.K. =Andrew Whitehead=
The resounding failure of Britain’s Conservative-led government to deliver on its promises to limit immigration is already one of the key themes of the campaign for May’s general election. Not because the Labour opposition is seizing on the issue – but because of the increasingly potent threat from UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, which has struck a chord with its demands for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and a much more restrictive attitude to migration.
Five years ago, UKIP didn’t win a single seat in the general election. Since then, it has topped the poll in elections to the European Parliament (though with a low turn-out in a contest which excites little interest), and has won over two Conservative MPs who promptly resigned their seats and successfully contested by-elections in their new political colours.
UKIP is now at 15% in some UK-wide opinion polls, and its remarkable rise is shaping how all the main parties set out their campaign stalls.
Set alongside UKIP’s startling emergence into the political mainstream is the growing political muscle of Britain’s migrant communities. The proportion of those able to vote on May 7th who were born outside the UK is 10% - and of course many British-born voters would identify with immigrant communities. They don’t vote as a bloc – but it’s a striking, and little noticed, fact that migrants to the UK after a fashion balance out the support for the emerging ‘let’s get tougher on immigration’ political party.
The political emphasis on migration is not a reflection of deep racial tension and division within Britain. The country is much more comfortable in its diversity than it was back in the Thatcher era of the 1980s.
Some communities – notably Pakistanis (largely from Mirpur) and Bangladeshis (mainly from Sylhet) – remain disadvantaged and, in northern cities and towns particularly, are informally segregated, living in their own areas, with their own schools, and at the margins of the formal economy. But Britain has changed. Marriage across racial and religious boundaries is now entirely unremarkable. Racial discrimination is not only illegal - it is socially unacceptable and increasingly rare.
Still, the sharp economic recession from which Britain is only now emerging, and the influx of young workers from the newer member countries of the EU such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, has propelled immigration up the political agenda. In some areas which had little experience of immigration, the newcomers were seen as snapping up low-paid jobs, and putting additional pressure on housing, schools and the health service. The Labour party now acknowledges that when Tony Blair was in power, the government failed to appreciate the level of popular concern about migration, and failed to articulate a response.
That’s why David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, pledged that his government would restrict net migration into Britain to under 100,000 a year. It’s a promise he hasn’t come close to meeting. The latest figures – which, inconveniently for the Conservatives, were released just as the election campaign was getting going – show that immigration is at three times that level and on an upward curve. ‘Immigration has become [Cameron’s] most embarrassing failure as prime minister’, thundered The Times recently on its front page.
UKIP is nothing like as vicious in its polemic as earlier anti-immigrant parties such as the National Front and the British National Party. It insists it is not racist or Islamophobic – though some of its supporters certainly are – and that it wants not a halt to immigration, but much tighter management which gives priority particularly to workers with skills which the country needs, such as nurses.
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s larger-than-life leader, links concern about migration to what he sees as Britain’s abdication of power to Brussels and the European Union. EU rules about free movement of labour mean that there is, as things stand, little London can do about limiting migration from the poorer EU member states. David Cameron says he wants to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and then hold a referendum about whether Britain stays or leaves – a commitment that demonstrates the political leverage that UKIP and like-minded Conservatives have gained.
And the UKIP message is resonating with some from more established immigrant communities. Pritesh Patel, born in India and now working as a newsagent in a town east of London where UKIP expects to poll well, told the Guardian that he’s thinking of voting for them. “Everyone wants to come to England now and we need to shut the door. I voted [Conservative] last time and Labour has done s**t for this country. So yes, probably UKIP”.
The immigrant vote matters in this election. Migrants who have taken British citizenship can vote – and so too can those from Commonwealth countries and from Ireland (though other EU nationals don’t get a vote). All told, about four-million of those eligible to vote in May have been born overseas – with Indians the largest group, following by Pakistanis, Irish and Bangladeshis. There are two constituencies, both in London, where more than half the electorate have been born overseas – and a further fifty Parliamentary seats where first generation migrants make up more than a quarter of those able to vote.
Mr Patel apart, most of those voters will support parties which are seen as positive about race equality. Labour has tended to get the larger part of the migrant vote – and has seventeen non-white MPs, twelve of them of South Asian origin, a much higher proportion than any other party. But its hold on this section of the electorate, and particularly among Indian voters, is weakening.
“UKIP have made all the running with the immigration debate in the past few years and we have seen all of the parties looking to offer a harder line on migrants”, says Robert Ford of Manchester University, author of a report for the Migrants’ Rights Network. “But there is another side to this debate – millions of hardworking citizens who came to this country from abroad who find this kind of rhetoric profoundly alienating.”
As yet, the main parties are putting more effort into meeting the challenge from UKIP, and talking tough on immigration, than in courting the migrant vote. That may well be a political mistake.